The Big Picture

  • Christian Bale’s breakout performance in Empire of the Sun established him as a rising talent, showcasing his ability to portray the loss of innocence during wartime.
  • The pressures of fame and the weight of carrying a production at a young age had a lasting impact on Bale’s mental health, leading him to consider quitting acting.
  • Bale returned to acting because he found personal satisfaction in challenging roles that pushed him to his physical and emotional limits, such as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.


Christian Bale has distinguished himself as one of the best actors of his generation, as his unflinching willingness to commit to his roles signifies his talents as an artist. While Bale’s ability to lose and gain a tremendous amount of weight is impressive in its own right, he has often chosen challenging roles that showcase different attributes of his personality. Between playing Gotham City’s Caped Crusader in The Dark Knight, former Vice President Dick Cheney in Vice, a compulsive sociopath in American Psycho, and a drug-addicted boxing trainer in The Fighter, Bale’s diversity of roles show that he is always willing to challenge himself. While he continues to deliver noteworthy performances, Bale nearly quit acting entirely due to his traumatic experiences shooting the World War II classic Empire of the Sun.

Empire of the Sun movie poster

Empire of the Sun

A young English boy struggles to survive under Japanese occupation of China during World War II.

Release Date
December 11, 1987

Runtime
154m

Main Genre
War

Production Company
Amblin Entertainment


How Did ‘Empire of the Sun’ Change Christian Bale’s Career?

While entering the film industry is a challenge for most young actors, these difficulties are even more evident for someone landing their first role in a Steven Spielberg movie. Spielberg’s 1987 film Empire of the Sun tells the true story of Jim Graham, a wealthy English boy who is separated from his family during Japan’s invasion of China during World War II. As Jim tries to find his way back home to his parents, he becomes a prisoner-of-war and encounters various shady characters amidst his long journey home. In addition to being Spielberg’s first World War II-era movie, Empire of the Sun required a dynamic child performer to ensure that the material was handled properly. Empire of the Sun examines war through the eyes of a young boy, and the lead actor cast needed to capture this loss of innocence.

Bale was cast in Empire of the Sun when he was 13 years old and delivered a breakout performance that signified him as a rising talent. What’s notable about Empire of the Sun is that Jim has little understanding of the events that surround him; he knows very little about the political conflicts that sparked the war and cannot understand the privilege that he has been gifted with. Although watching any child get separated from their parents is heartbreaking, Bale does a great job at showing how Jim’s experiences are representative of an entire generation of families torn apart during World War II. While Spielberg often explores stories about deteriorating families, the historical context of Empire of the Sun makes it even more poignant.

Although Empire of the Sun was a success and his performance drew acclaim, Bale struggled with the pressures of fame in the aftermath of the film’s release. While Bale stated to The Talks that he “had a wonderful time” working with Spielberg, he admitted that it is “not really great for kids to go into such an adult profession at such a young age.” Given that the responsibilities of an entire production rested upon his shoulders, it’s not surprising that the experience had a lasting impact on Bale’s mental health. Despite the personal satisfaction that he gained from his work within Empire of the Sun, Bale struggled to be “completely anonymous” in the aftermath due to the pressure of living up to his work and considered quitting the industry altogether.

Why Did Christian Bale Return to Acting?

Given the tremendous scale and success of the film, it’s not surprising that many of Christian Bale’s subsequent roles felt like disappointments in comparison to Empire of the Sun. Although it would eventually inspire a popular Broadway musical of the same name, 1992’s Newsies was a critical and commercial disappointment that failed to give Bale another dynamic leading character. Although his subsequent work within Swing Kids, Little Women, and The Portrait of a Lady was much better received, Bale admitted that he “didn’t really fully come back around until quite a few years later,” as his “heart wasn’t really in it for quite a long time after that.”

While the pressures of young stardom may have ended his career prematurely, Bale cited a series of great roles as his reason for continuing to act. Realizing that “when it goes well and you enjoy the process then it’s a high and you just want to keep on doing it,” Bale began appearing in challenging projects that took him to his physical and emotional limits. While many young stars struggle to transition to adult roles, Bale exemplified his desire to take risks with his hilariously disturbing performance as Patrick Bateman in the 2000 satire American Psycho. The film’s dynamic commentary on capitalism, toxic masculinity, and violent fanaticism challenged Bale to unlock his darker sensibilities.

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Despite the challenges that he faced during his emergence within the industry, Bale has proven to be one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation. Although he’s often chosen more artistically driven films as opposed to mainstream blockbusters, Bale’s performance as Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy distinguished him as one of the best actors to ever play Batman. Bale’s talents were acknowledged by his peers when he earned the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his heartbreaking performance in 2010’s The Fighter; Bale subsequently received nominations for his work in American Hustle and Vice.

‘Empire of the Sun’ Is One of Spielberg’s Most Underrated Movies

While he was already an acclaimed filmmaker when he began working with Bale, Empire of the Sun represented a breakthrough in Spileberg’s abilities as a dramatic filmmaker. Previously, Spielberg’s career has largely been associated with the “blockbuster era” he helped initiate with Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. While 1985’s The Color Purple established his knack for historical dramas, Empire of the Sun was the first of his many films set during World War II.

As with many of his films, Empire of the Sun showed Spielberg’s skills in working with young actors. Between Elliot Thomas in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Gabriel LaBelle in The Fabelmans, Spielberg has consistently been able to get strong performances from child performers who are mature beyond their years. In addition to kickstarting a career of strong performances, Bale’s work in Empire of the Sun reached a level of nuance that few child actors are capable of.

Empire of the Sun is available to rent on Amazon in the U.S.

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